In the past five years, he has gone after price gougers and corrupt landlords, opened an investigation into sexual abuse by Roman Catholic clergy in D.C. and has repeatedly taken on President Trump, bolstering the city’s national profile in the process.
And next week, he will assume the presidency of the National Association of Attorneys General (NAAG), a nonpartisan coalition representing every U.S. state, the District and five territories. Using his new platform, Racine, a Democrat, will ask his fellow attorneys general to set aside political differences to combat hate crimes and extremism across the United States.
Each NAAG president, elected as part of a regional rotation, gets to choose a focus for the year-long term; previous efforts have included a focus on elder abuse and human trafficking. Racine is the first to take on hate crimes. Attorneys general from both parties have praised the initiative as timely, albeit sensitive, amid national conversations about racial justice and a sharp increase in the number of bias-related offenses.
“Given the clear increase in hate ideology and hate offenses — particularly over the last four years — the moment was right to put this weighty issue on the table,” Racine said in an interview. “If we can get 56 attorneys general to make a pledge to stand up against hate, I think that’s massively significant.”
D.C. law enforcement agencies reported 222 hate crimes in 2019, according to a national database curated by the FBI — but unlike other attorneys general, Racine does not have the power to prosecute those offenses or other adult felonies in the city. That responsibility belongs uniquely to the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, a presidential appointee whose office handles most of D.C.’s criminal cases. The office was criticized last year after a Washington Post investigation revealed that it prosecuted just a handful of criminal cases as hate crimes in 2017 and 2018, despite record numbers of arrests in those years for incidents reported as bias-motivated.
Racine wishes his office could handle all adult offenses in the city, including alleged hate crimes, but sees addressing the issue on a national scale as the next best thing. As part of his initiative, he’ll call on his peers to help shore up their states’ reporting of hate-crime statistics and educate young people on resisting the appeal of domestic extremism.
The FBI reported 51 hate-motivated killings in the United States last year, a record high since the agency began gathering and recording such data in 1992. Hate crimes overall rose about 2.7 percent nationally in 2019 after declining slightly the previous year. Most of the crimes were based on bias against race, religion and sexual orientation.
Advocates say the data only scratches the surface of the number of hate crimes committed in the United States. Local law enforcement agencies are not required to send hate-crime data to the FBI, and of the 15,600 or so agencies that submitted crime data in 2019, 86 percent reported no hate offenses. Seventy-one cities with populations over 100,000 people reported no hate crimes last year, according to Ryan Greer of the Anti-Defamation League, which tracks data on hate and anti-Semitism. Greer said those numbers suggest chronic underreporting.
“Some places don’t report because reporting isn’t mandatory,” said Greer, the ADL’s director for program assessment and strategy. “Some law enforcement seems unwilling to participate in chronicling it, indicating the real numbers are substantially higher.”
Racine would like to change that. One of his top priorities while heading the NAAG is to ask attorneys general in each U.S. state and territory to commit to asking for more resources to collect hate crime data — and to make sure it is sent to the FBI.
“I think our government needs to step up and do more,” Racine said.
New Hampshire Attorney General Gordon MacDonald (R) has taken similar steps in his state, partnering with more than 200 law enforcement agencies to better detect hate crimes and ensure they are reported. MacDonald’s office last year released new protocols for investigating and reporting hate crimes that instruct each department to send data to the FBI.
MacDonald said he received no pushback when discussing the proposal, as local officers were “willing to engage and wanted to do right by the citizens of our state.”
“Those are the essential ingredients to make this work in other states and jurisdictions,” MacDonald said. “And if there’s anyone to get it done and persuade our colleagues to do it, it’s Attorney General Racine.”
Racine’s office is responsible for prosecuting juvenile offenders in the District, though he has embraced education-based and violence-interruption alternatives. He has organized forums and roundtables with D.C. residents and high-schoolers to discuss hate and has received acclaim for his office’s 2016 restorative justice program, which seeks to avoid traditional juvenile prosecution through mediation.
Reported hate crimes tripled in the District between 2015 and 2019, Racine said, but very few of those cases involved juveniles. To expand his reach, he introduced legislation to the D.C. Council that would empower his office to bring civil charges against those who commit hate crimes or other bias-related offenses. The council held a hearing on the bill in March and it recently advanced out of the committee on the judiciary and public safety. It will come to a first vote Tuesday.
Connecticut Attorney General William Tong (D), who is pursuing similar legislation that would broaden his office’s power to pursue civil penalties for hate crimes, co-wrote an op-ed with Racine in May that urged state leaders to bring more awareness to the rise in hate crimes this year. They concluded that the surge was partially due to stress caused by the coronavirus pandemic and some of Trump’s rhetoric about the virus, in which he has blamed China for the pandemic and used racist terminology to describe the outbreak.
Tong, the first Asian American elected at the state level in Connecticut, says Racine’s focus will ensure that the country’s attorneys general have the tools and language needed to properly confront hate in their communities. In the coming year, Racine said, the group also will discuss how the country’s history has contributed to hate ideology, including slavery and the treatment of Native Americans.
But can they all agree on definitions and strategies on hate and extremism? Tong pointed to the NAAG’s other work in recent years — on issues such as consumer protection, the opioid addiction crisis and investigations into technology companies — as evidence that the organization can unite on one goal, putting partisanship aside.
Racine said the discourse may become contentious at times, “because of conversations that we’ve not had for far too long.” Montana Attorney General Tim Fox (R), the outgoing NAAG president, said he focused his year-long initiative on leadership and civility in part because of recent strains in relationships among some attorneys general — tensions he attributed to partisan bias.
“I hope it is a point of contention. I hope Karl’s initiative forces people to have a dialogue. I hope it forces people to be uncomfortable,” said Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro (D). “If we all take a minute to hear from each other, learn and grow, we’ll be better attorneys general, and our states will be in a strong position to tackle these issues.”
For Racine, his leadership post at the NAAG comes as local politicians speculate about his plans in the District — including whether he will seek reelection in 2022, challenge two-term Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) or take a job in the Biden administration.
Racine said he does not rule anything out but remains committed to his current role. He said he thinks his leading the NAAG will bring the District greater recognition nationally as he and other local leaders continue their campaign for the city to attain statehood and voting representation in Congress.
The nation’s other attorneys general have all heard his stump speech on D.C. statehood. More than once, Racine said.
“I don’t think attorneys general of other states really had an idea around the true capacity for leadership in the District of Columbia, and I think that changed in 2015,” he said. “People would say: ‘I can’t believe you’re leading on an issue when you’re not even a damn state!’ I haven’t heard that in years.”